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Q & A
Q&A: Mission trips that will have lasting impact Robin Russell, Aug 21, 2009
Almost two million Americans go on short-term missions trips each year, but do such efforts create lasting change? Filmmaker Nathan Clarke says yes, if such mission teams work to build partnerships between their churches and those with whom they are ministering. In the new documentary-style DVD and curriculum Round Trip, produced by Christianity Today International (www.roundtripmissions.com), he chronicles the reciprocal mission trips of two churches: one from Chapel Hill, N.C., and one from Nairobi, Kenya.
Mr. Clarke, who works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s twentyonehundred productions in Madison, Wis., spoke recently with managing editor Robin Russell.
So many churches send people on short-term mission trips. What draws people to this experience? One of the things is the church is becoming much more global. Just the ease of getting on the plane: You can now fly straight from the U.S. to Ghana. Not only that, you can coordinate your whole trip via e-mail. It’s made the world sort of smaller.
I think the efforts of missionaries in the past have borne fruit, particularly in the global south—Africa, Latin America and Asia—you see the church exploding there. It’s really opened the door for a different type of mission. Instead of taking the gospel and looking for converts, it’s churches visiting churches and asking one another, “What can we do to help you out? How can we partner together?” People want to make a difference in the world. And a place you can make a difference is in places where you see need.
This is where you can become a little bit cynical: Some mission trips are just us going to help them. Let’s help the poor starving kid in Africa. That’s part of the American ethos now. And it’s a really great thing, but it can become paternalistic.
There’s been some criticism about whether short-term mission trips create lasting change. I would say that that is a fair criticism: Many mission trips are at the best tourism; at the worst, paternalism. There are some factors that add to that. The biggest one is a lack of partnership: not returning to a location year-in, year-out; not asking what your hosts want or need; not asking what you can learn from your host. All of those things play into that.
There are churches out there that are doing partnerships with other churches from other countries. And that does lead to lasting change. That does lead to people coming back and asking fundamental questions about how they live their lives, where they spend their resources, asking questions about how we do church. It leads to lasting change on the part of the host as well. And that doubles when the guests become the host, as was the case with these teams who welcomed one another into their own location.
Many United Methodists have worked to create partnerships between U.S. and African conferences. Why is it so important to form these kinds of partnerships? This is about building relationships with one another: the simple act of spending time with one another in one another’s home situations. For Americans, that is oftentimes very difficult for us to do. We like to have a schedule, we like to have an agenda, we like to have a checklist—we want to get things done. I think a significant thing that we need to learn is there is value in sitting with people and listening and sharing about our lives. We have to start with the understanding that culturally, we are not complete, either as an individual or as a group. I have so much to learn from a Kenyan who has a very different idea of how one relates to authority, of how one relates to a community and how that community relates to God. Maybe I could learn some of that by somebody giving me a lecture. But the best way I’m going to learn that and appreciate it in my heart, is by sitting with people and living with them, and experiencing what their day-to-day life is like, and praying with them as they go through their lives.
It’s not building churches; it’s not brick and mortar. It’s hard, because you can’t come home at the end of your trip and say, “Look at the wall that we painted,” only to find out that three months later another church has come and painted the same wall, because the host church didn’t really know what to give Americans to do so they just had them paint the same wall. I’d love to see the American church be able to say, “It’s OK that we didn’t do X, Y and Z, because the value of building this relationship will have so much more fruit than a painted wall.”
What are some things Christians can do to better prepare for these mission trips? The No. 1 thing that you can do is go back to the place that you went last year. If you’ve got a series of contacts, you know where you stayed, you know why that place didn’t work and why maybe you need another one, do we need a car—all those things are really important to preparing. That allows you to begin focusing on the really important work. Going through some book, some curriculum, something that forces you to ask questions, that draws out issues about what your assumptions are. Spending time together as a team, getting to know one another. It’s not if trouble’s going to hit on a short-term trip, it’s when it hits. You want to make sure you have the communication paths open.
I also think it’s really important to begin to learn and understand the culture that you are going to. Every time I go to a country, I make sure that I know something about the history of the country. You’re not going to know everything about Honduras after three two-hour meetings, but at least you’ll have some things to grab hold of.
With the churches that you filmed, how did the team members’ perceptions of one another change? The team from Kenya was neck-deep in American culture: They knew all the movies, they knew all the musical artists. A lot of the Kenyan perceptions were based on things that they saw in the media: They had fears about racism, concerns about whether people would look at them and say, “Who are these people? They shouldn’t be here.” There were a lot of assumptions that Americans were really into debauchery and drunkenness—sort of this godless land.
The Chapel Hill team knew what they should and shouldn’t say. They were all college-educated. There’s something about being politically correct. It’s not that they were surprised at how intelligent Kenyans were; I think maybe they were surprised at how much they had to learn from them. At the end of the trip, one of guys from the Chapel Hill team was talking to me about the whole center of Christianity moving south, and he said: “Before I came here and I’d heard that, I was really worried. Is this a good thing that the global south is taking leadership? [But] after my time here, I’m really excited about that. I’m excited about following their lead and seeing what God will do through their leadership.” That’s a way to get at the unspoken assumptions that we really do have, but we know we’re not supposed to have.
Did you learn anything personally from this film project? I’m a Gen-X. I tend to be cynical. That’s sort of what we’re brought up to be. And it’s really easy to be cynical about short-term missions. I heard one speaker draw a parallel between short-term missions and going to a zoo—is it really any different? To see what this can look like when it’s done well, and when it’s done in a way that honors God, honors His mission here on earth and honors the people that God has placed here on earth—for me, that was really important and really valuable.
Three years ago, could I have sat on a phone conversation with you and been excited about short-term missions? I’m not entirely sure. I would have said, “We need to do something to correct these things.” Whereas now, I feel like there are models out there we should steward and cultivate and share with more people. I think short-term missions are the whipping boy of a lot of critical Christian thinkers. It’s just like an easy target because they think it’s 16-year-old girls with too-short shorts and too-tight shirts going to Jamaica so they can really hang out on the beach. But it’s not just that. So I think that’s a major personal thing that I emotionally learned.